When I was a small-town teenager, sports heroes and movie stars were the role models of my generation. And while dreams of becoming the next Dr. J made me spend hours on the hard court, Hollywood's Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood, the two major stars of the 80's, contributed to my character in an entirely different way.
Reynolds, the number-one box office attraction from '78 to '82, played a smarmy, grinning, Trans-Am driving cowboy who removed his hat often, but for "one reason only". Eastwood, meanwhile, played both the mysterious "Man With No Name" and Dirty Harry (cowboys of a different sort) dispensing hardcore violence cum justice in a way that film critic Pauline Kael described as "right-wing fantasy".
So there I was, a vain teenager, with Hollywood happily filling the void. Burt and Clint, Sex and Violence: the two defining forces of a "make-my-day", "feet-good-do-it" generation.
But as Heath Leger's Joker (a villain, not a role model, you understand) might ask, "Why so sad?" Well, it's this. I'm feeling a little betrayed. Betrayed by a media machine that made me think that women were nothing more than sex objects and that Clint's strong, silent type of violence served as a reasonable facsimile for depth. In short, they were wrong … as was I.
But These days, thankfully, there's the emergence of a new kind of role model, the kind born of hard times and desperate measures. And if you believe author Malcolm Gladwell, it's no accident.
In his fascinating book on sociological change, Gladwell describes the Tipping Point as "the level at which momentum for change becomes unstoppable." And while Obama's election is a great example of that crest-of-the-wave momentum, I believe the movement towards this particular tipping point began years earlier.
In other words, the same kind of social intuition that caused Clint to start making a new genre of movie (Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino; movies with a new depth, a reap-what-you-sew morality), set the stage for Obama to become the right man in the right place at the right time. Or, as Gladwell may say, personify the last stage of a social epidemic that's been spreading for years.
But do not take my word for it. Put Obama's incredible success to the Gladwell test, or what the author calls the Three Rules of Epidemics.
First, The Law of the Few States that, "the success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of three kinds of people: Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen, with a rare set of social skills."
Connectors, for example, are people with a special gift for bringing the world together. Think Hollywood, in the form of Clint Eastwood and other morality-conscious directors fits the bill? How about the incredibly popular Texas tele-pastor Joel Osteen and his positive message of victory through excellence?
Mavens, secondly, are "people who accumulate knowledge, especially about the marketplace, and know how to share it with others." Think Obama's campaign manager David Plouffe suffices? All Plouffe did was combine on-line technology with grass-roots activism, mobilizing 1.5 million donors and raising hundreds of millions of dollars to derail the Clinton juggernaut and set a new standard for political campaigning and communication.
Finally, Salesmen are "charismatic people with an indefinable trait that goes beyond what they say making others want to agree with them.
Gladwell's second rule of epidemics is The Stickiness Factor, or "the content of a message that makes its impact memorable". Not since Kennedy asked "what you can do for your country" have three words, "Yes, We Can!", So so positively and inextricably linked to a politician.
And the final rule of epidemics: The Power of Context. As Gladwell says, epidemics are sensitive to the conditions of the times and places in which they occur. For example, in the same way in which efforts to combat vandalism on the New York subway led to a decline in more violent crimes, Obama's call for sacrifice and individual responsibility could lead to economic turnaround, increased tolerance and a less partisan government.
Furthermore, while the President's message may go unheeded in a strong economy or a period that was any other than post-Bush, our pigs-at-the-trough context means today's people are more likely to listen; just what the doctor order for a tipping-point "epidemic".
So, in the same way that Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood became the role models of my day, riding a social epidemic of recreational sex and unapologetic violence, Barack Obama is both the virus and the cure for what ails us today.
And what of George Bush, you may ask, the latter-day cowboy out of touch with today's tipping point times?
Well, consider it like this: he leaves us on the same dead horse he rode in on, a new Man With No Name, the role Clint abandoned (like the Gladwellian plague) nearly 30 years ago.
Coincidence? Uh-uh. Unforgiven? You bet'cha.